Scott Darling. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
How did Scott Darling become Chicago's savior in Game 1 against Nashville? The secret may be the space between his ears.
A fleeting moment in goaltender Scott Darling's scene-stealing Wednesday performance summed up his season: a playful wink at an official.
Darling was right in the middle of setting an NHL record for the most minutes played in relief (67:44) without allowing a goal. He had just stopped one of the 42 shots he'd face on a night in which his Chicago Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit to gut out an overtime road win in Nashville. He'd quite possibly spurred a goaltending controversy with Corey Crawford. Yet Darling wasn't above a fun little wink. He doesn't remember when it happened, as he said he had a few different interactions with the refs in Game 1. He skated by and apologized for yelling at them. They bought him some time when he cramped up in OT. And there was the wink, which represented someone stopping to enjoy the latest destination on his unlikely road.
Maybe that sense of perspective and appreciation is precisely what made Darling a cool customer – and a winner – in Game 1.
Oddly enough, we spoke just a few days ago, with no idea Darling was about to become a playoff hero. Darling, 26, had just earned Chicago's nomination for the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
You may know Darling's story by now – my colleague Ken Campbell told it well – but in case you don't: Darling in four years went from a man cast off by his SPHL team, overweight, drinking excessively and suffering from social anxiety, to NHL goalie. His climb included stops in the ECHL and AHL, overcoming his fitness problems and catching the eye of then-Predators goalie guru Mitch Korn with the help of another puck-stopping coach, Brian Daccord.
Darling described the toughest jump as that between the ECHL and the AHL – "usually half the guys in the AHL have played in the NHL, at least a game or two," he said – but you'd never know he struggled with it given his numbers. He went 13-6-2 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in his 2013-14 debut with the Milwaukee Admirals and, while the Preds organization didn't retain him, his play earned him a contract last summer with the Rockford IceHogs, Chicago's AHL affiliate.
Less than a year later, the 6-foot-6, 232-pound Darling has another year's worth of sparkling AHL numbers (14-8-2, 2.00, .927), a stunning first slate of NHL games (9-4-0, 1.94, .936), and a two-year contract extension. He's usurped Antti Raanta on the NHL roster. And, of course, there's the Masterton nod.
"It was a huge honor, thinking back to some of the guys who have won the award and what they have accomplished," Darling said. "I remember reading about and seeing Dominic Moore last year. It’s just a truly amazing story, and to be nominated into a group like that, it's a huge honor."
The entire experience has been extra special for Darling because he grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He was a Louisiana IceGator four years ago, and now he plays for the team he idolized as a kid. He could start for that team soon if Crawford, whom coach Joel Quenneville confirmed as the man for Game 2, falters again. Even before Darling's Game 1 heroics, though, he had noticed his life starting to change, and he couldn't have been more appreciative.
"It is different when people actually notice me when I’m walking around town, but it's also a lot of fun because, when I was growing up, the Hawks weren’t that big of a ticket around town, and it's great to be back and to be able to see this city totally embrace the hockey world," Darling said. "And the Blackhawks, they just love the team, and it's great to see people that I grew up with, and now there’s this huge Blackhawks fan base. When I was a kid, it wasn’t that way, and I think it changed over in 2006-07. It's great for the city."
Darling was, of course, referring to end of the team's Bill Wirtz ownership era, in which locally televised games were blacked out and fan support was at an all-time low. Rocky Wirtz took over after his father's death in 2007, the Hawks got back on TV, they started winning with pillars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane…you know what happened next.
You get the sense Darling never wants to let go of how special he feels to be a Blackhawk right now. He takes nothing for granted. He may have put the heat on Crawford's job, but Darling wasn't even willing to admit he'd beaten out Raanta a week ago. Darling fought his way out of a dark place and refuses to get too comfortable.
"No, I don't know that I ever really will," he said. "It's very dog-eat-dog business. Antti, he’s a great goalie, and he’s had tremendous success, including this season, and he’s signed on for next year, and so am I. The second you get comfortable, you let your guard down, the next thing you know you’re back to the minor leagues. So I’m going to try to keep it green and stay excited to be here and not keep a death grip on this position."
Keeping it green. Darling couldn't have described it better. And the mentality couldn't have been more present in the aforementioned wink. Darling seems to have found a balance between staying relaxed and determined, between appreciative and focused. That's great news for the Hawks. It's bad news for the Predators. And it may be bad news for Crawford if he doesn't bounce back in Game 2.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin